By Rev. Fr. Ramon D. Echica

[Based on his talk at the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) media forum during Cebu Press Freedom Week 2019, held at MBF Cebu Press Center in Sudlon, Lahug, Cebu City last Sept. 19, 2019. The other speaker at the forum was Jason A. Baguia, a  communication teacher-researcher at U.P. Cebu and former Cebu Daily News columnist.]

I am offering my reflections on fake news neither as a cleric nor part of the academe, although I also cannot leave these two hats behind. I like to think that this piece simply comes from a non-journalist, sharing his thoughts to the professional practitioners of journalism.

The landscape of mainstream media is changing rapidly in large part because of social media. Like almost all things, this novel phenomenon has its upsides and downsides. On the former, social media connects people. It is now possible to talk to someone miles away, and free of charge. Indeed, most people believe they are better off with social media than with none.


It is fake news when it is used by political leaders to harass journalists and there is threat of greater harm. Media consumers need to think critically. And journalists can be more honest about their biases and not fail to apologize for their mistakes.


But on its downside, in its social media where people show their narcissism. People post on facebook some trashy materials and what should not be for public consumption. There seems to be an information overload because of social media. Furthermore, one inevitably compromises one’s privacy if one enters into social media.

 Dramatizing discourse

On the political front, social media democratizes discourse. Before the advent of social media, Juan de la Cruz participates in political discourse mainly through the ballot. If Juan de la Cruz wants to be heard through media, he is to write a letter to the editor, and very few have the talent and the patience to do so. But today, anyone can make a post.

Today too, at least theoretically, social media has made it possible for a candidate to campaign and reach out to millions of people. All serious candidates have a team that campaigns on social media. Furthermore, there are in fact influential people today who convey their messages through the social media. Donald Trump and Teddyboy Locsin are good examples.

But still in the political front, it has its downside. Anyone can post anything with nary a regard for its veracity. The verification process, if there is any, is extremely slow. There are fact-checkers but because of the lightning speed of the spread of social media, some false items are already read by millions before they are proved to be false.

Distinguished from inaccurate reporting

There is where the phenomenon of fake news comes in. It is to be distinguished from inaccurate reporting or erroneous appropriation of data. Fake news is fabricated and spread with the intention to mislead. The intention to deceive is what differentiates it from inaccurate reporting. (When Mocha Uson locates Mayon Volcano in Naga City, it may have come from plain ignorance but it is not fake news.) What aggravates the culpability of the person posting the fake news is that he or she often hides under the cover of anonymity.

It is not that the mainstream media does not have its own way of manufacturing consent (to use a title of Noam Chomsky’s study of media). Just like any institution, including the church, newspaper organizations, radio and TV stations have some bad apples.  Those are people who knowingly propagate fake news. But by and large, people in the mainstream media are answerable to whatever they produce or write. They are subjected to the rules of verification.

It is different with fake news. It seems to be free for all, and, with the popularity of Facebook, it can spread much more rapidly than legitimate news. The current phenomenon of fake news differs from previous false news in terms of its numbers (the number of fake news), its rapid spread, and maybe by the fact that it is sometimes done by leaders themselves (like Trump saying that Obama was not born in the United States.)

Examples of fake news

Let us give examples of fake news. Let us start with examples outside of the Philippines.

• Pictures of former President Bush having a good time in his ranch while Katrina was wrecking havoc in New Orleans. (Truth: he was in the White House)

• Obama made to appear like shaking hands with the President of Iran (Truth: there was no such event).

• Another example: In January 2016, a German girl of Russian descent did not return home and stayed in a friend’s house. She had some problems in her family and in her studies. The parents reported her missing to the police. She then returned the next day and perhaps to avoid being disciplined, she came up with a story that she was abducted and raped and lost her cell phone. The police followed up her story, went to the residence of the friend, found her things all in order. Medical examination confirmed that the story that she had been raped was untrue. It was basically a problem internal to the family. But then came the spread of the fake news. In order to stimulate anti-immigration hysteria, there were fake news that a girl had been raped by a refugee. The fake news suggests that refugee rapists were set loose in Germany. The German police issued a tactful statement, about what really happened and called for a responsible use of social media. Police protocol obligated them to protect the privacy of the family. But purveyors of fake news do not follow any guidelines. Thus, the fake news continued that the German police were hiding the facts and were rolling out the red carpet for Muslim rapists. This fake news had dire consequences: Among chief executives in Europe, Angela Merkel was the most open to refugees, but largely because of the use of fake news by anti-immigration protesters, she had to backtrack.

 In the Philippines, you are more familiar with some examples, like the fake news that Pope Francis blessed the candidate Rodrigo Duterte, that Princess Harry and Meghan praised him.


It is fake news if it is  fabricated and spread with the intention to mislead. The intention to deceive is what differentiates it from inaccurate reporting.


And of course, there was Mocha Uson, oftentimes called the queen of fake news. Among the fake news she peddled was a picture of a child who she said was raped by Filipino drug addicts. It was later known that the picture comes from a case in Brazil in 2014. In the Senate, when asked whether she verifies her sources, she answered that she is not a journalist but a blogger, as if the obligation to tell the truth is not for every human being.

The Presidential son Paolo, in 2018, was also criticized for peddling fake news. He gave names of some people who were plotting to oust his father. Among those he named were supposedly three bishops, but one is already long dead, the other is wheelchair-bound, and there was no Filipino bishop that corresponded to the third name that he gave.

The most notorious fake news is the supposed sex video of Sen. Leila de Lima. Legislators in the Lower House watched the video without first verifying its authenticity.

To be fair, we need to point out that the President Duterte himself can  be a victim of fake news. If proven that the series of videos were maliciously produced and the allegations are false, then the so-called Bikoy ( who later identified himself as peter Joemel Advincula) could also be a peddler of fake news. However, there seems to be more interest in exposing the people behind Bikoy. There seems to be no interest in determining which parts of the videos are false and which ones may be true.



Patterns to muzzle media

Here, I want to make a side comment which I cannot fully develop since, although related, it is beyond the topic of fake news and gives patterns of trying to muzzle mainstream media. When the spread of fake news goes hand in hand with attempts to harass the mainstream media, then we are entering dangerous territory. In many countries today that are headed by populist leaders, there seems to be a pattern of harassing mainstream media.

Harvard University professors Steven Levisky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, give us examples of attempts to harass media.

Rafael Correa of El Salvador called the media a grave political enemy that needs to be defeated.

In Turkey, the powerful Dogan Yayin media conglomerate, which controlled the mostly widely-read newspaper Hurriyat and other TV stations, was fined 2.5 billion dollars for tax evasion. Dogan was forced to sell many of its media outlets and the buyers were pro-government businessmen.

In Russia, the owner of the NTV station Vladimir Gusinski was arrested for financial misappropriation.  To get back his freedom, he was forced to turn over the NTV station to a government-controlled company.

Still in Russia, the government revived a long dormant fraud case against Boris Berezovsky, an owner a television station which was critical of Putin. Berezovky fled, leaving his station to a junior partner who handed the station to Putin’s disposal.

Chavez of Venezuela also initiated investigation into the finances of Globovision television owner Guillermo Zuloaga. He escaped arrest but was forced to sell his TV station to a government friendly businessman.

I leave it to you to judge whether the same harassment is happening in the Philippines.

What to do about fake news 

We have described the problem. What are we to do about it? I will mention three points for our reflection.

[1] EDUCATION. The best antidote to fake news is a citizenry that is educated and committed. I stress this point even though this is outside the province of journalism. Education should teach people how to think critically.

Oftentimes, many have expressed the opinion that for our country to succeed, we need our students to be trained in natural sciences, and less on humanities. Obviously, natural sciences have their value. But with the proliferation of fake news, I think we can say that we need our citizens to know how to reason, to be discerning on what is false and what is true.

 [2] EMPTY NET.  Lay all the cards on the table. It is a given that we have to tell the truth. But we actually have lenses when we search for the truth. Our lenses can be our own biases, ideologies, maybe, political loyalties, etc.          

Allow me to elaborate: the philosopher John Locke explained that our minds are empty before we know. But current philosophy tells us that we cannot avoid being subjective.

Let me use an image other than lenses. The idea that our minds are tabula rasa prior to the process of data gathering can be likened to an empty net before the fishes come into it. But the fact is we actually decide where to place our nets and this decision influences what kind of fish can enter our nets. The decision where to place our nets is guided by our own biases.

Biases are inevitable. One simply has to be aware of one’s own prejudices. Indeed, it is even more dangerous to make a pretense of objectivity, unaware of one’s biases. But having said that biases cannot be avoided, I now want to stress my point which is honesty before our readers about our biases.

[3] PROFESSIONAL HUMILITYLearn to apologize if you are proven wrong. Needless to say, there is an obligation to thoroughly verify the information we gather. But despite sincere efforts, one can fall for fake news. If such an unfortunate thing happens, the best thing to do is to apologize. We can be more credible if we admit our mistakes.

We cannot be like a lady journalist in a national daily. She cited what she thought was real study supposedly done in Harvard University that proved that Filipinos are most gullible. Many reacted that there was no such study. The reactions must have reached her. But her reply betrayed  lack of humility. In her later column, she said that indeed there was no study but still Filipinos are gullible.

 


​Rev. Fr. Ramon D. Echica, S.T.D. (doctor of sacred theology), is dean of studies of Seminario Mayor de San Carlos in Cebu City. He has also  served for several years now as member of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council en banc and its treasurer.